ROME: EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini said Monday the bloc had "no more excuses" not to act to halt the flood of migrants as Italy and Malta continued to look for survivors from the latest shipwreck.
More than 700 people are feared dead after a fishing boat crammed with migrants seeking a better life in Europe capsized off Libya, with some survivors suggesting nearly 1,000 could have been on board.
"With this latest tragedy... we have no more excuses, the EU has no more excuses, the member states have no more excuses," Mogherini said.
"We need immediate action from the EU and the member states," she said as she arrived for an emergency meeting of foreign and interior ministers to discuss what could be done.
Italian and Maltese navy boats meanwhile continued a desperate search for the victims of Sunday's disaster, as an Italian vessel brought the first group of survivors and 24 bodies to Malta.
The Bruno Gregoracci coast guard cutter docked with 24 body bags laid out on its deck, which were then carried to waiting hearses for transfer to a morgue.
The deaths of hundreds more desperate migrants caused an outcry across Europe, where newspapers called it the "EU's darkest day" and a "disgrace" for EU policy.
"European leaders knew full well that the number of victims at sea from African migration would smash records from the spring," Belgium daily Le Soir wrote.
Refugee and rights bodies also described the disaster as one that could have been avoided and demanded European governments both beef up rescue operations and address the underlying causes of the flood of asylum-seekers and migrants washing up on Europe's shores.
"The world needs to react with the conviction with which it eliminated piracy off the coast of Somalia a few years ago," said Wiliam Lacy Swing, director general of the International Organization for Migration.
"All of us, especially the EU and world's powers can no longer sit on the sidelines watching while tragedy unfolds in slow motion."
Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the EU had to address the chaos in Libya which allows smugglers to operate out of the troubled north African state with impunity.
"We have what is fast becoming a failed state on our doorsteps and criminal gangs are enjoying a heyday."
The foreign ministers on their own had been due to discuss the situation in Libya.
Mogherini, a former Italian foreign minister and very aware of her country's anguish over events, has been pushing the EU to be more pro-active on Libya and she made the point again.
Just as the Islamist attacks in Paris in January had generated a common response, so this incident should give momentum to finding a common migration policy, she said.
"The main issue here is to build a common sense of European responsibility, knowing that there is no easy solution," she added.
Some 11,000 migrants have been rescued since the middle of last week alone and current trends suggest last year's total of 170,000 landing in Italy is likely to be exceeded in 2015.
The issue of who handles these migrants -- for asylum or repatriation -- is hugely sensitive, with Italy complaining its EU partners are not doing enough.
It scaled back its Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation at the end of last year in protest at the rising cost and it was replaced by a smaller EU-led mission called Triton.
The recent flood of migrants and the growing loss of life has put that decision back in focus but some EU member states, especially those not directly affected, have been reluctant to do more.
Sunday's disaster could change that.
"With respect to the death of up to 950 people yesterday in the Mediterranean we cannot go back to normal," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.
"We need an open discussion without taboos, what policy, what the European Union can do in these times," Steinmeier added.
The fishing boat capsized most likely as a result of terrified passengers stampeding to one side in desperation to get off after coastal authorities in Italy and Malta picked up a distress signal around midnight (2200 GMT) on Saturday, when it was still in Libyan waters.
The deadliest incident prior to Sunday occurred off Malta in September 2014.
An estimated 500 migrants drowned in a shipwreck caused by traffickers deliberately ramming the boat in an attempt to force the people on board onto another, smaller vessel.
In October 2013, more than 360 Africans perished when the tiny boat they were crammed onto caught fire within sight of the coast of Lampedusa in Italy.
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
For more information, please see our Comments FAQ